Airpower At 18,000': The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War

  • Published

Airpower At 18,000’: The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War by Benjamin S. Lambeth. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012, 58 pp.

This slim volume contains a brief but detailed scholarly analysis of the operations of the Bharatiya Vāyu Senā (Indian air force) in support of Operation Vijay to regain control of territory that Pakistan seized in a remote part of Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1999. Even more than a decade after, this particular operation remains relatively unknown, largely overshadowed by the effort of the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies against Serbia over the Kosovo problem. Despite its obscurity, the Kargil conflict offers some important lessons for students of airpower, and the author discusses them with considerable skill, taking a clinical, academic approach.

With considerable brevity and elegance, author Benjamin Lambeth examines the contribution of the Indian air force in its indirect combat-support role as well as its key logistics and intelligence-gathering function. He also addresses the larger context of the service’s behavior during the conflict, which included the following: initial intelligence failures that allowed Pakistan’s infiltration to take India completely by surprise; the air force’s early losses in the face of Pakistani surface-to-air missiles, which forced a change in behavior to avoid further attrition of its air assets; the bureaucratic rivalry and initial lack of communication and collaboration with the BhāratÄ«ya ThalasÄ“nā (Indian army); and the paucity of prior training for high-altitude combat. All of these factors forced the Indian air force to extemporize and quickly adapt to conditions for which it had not prepared. Lambeth is generous in his praise for the air arm, critical of its failings, and interested in the larger political and geopolitical implications of the Kargil War and the way it was waged.

For one, the author addresses the Indian army’s view of airpower and the air force’s use of its superiority to provide key support in the eventually successful counterattack. He also compares the Indian and Pakistani air forces, particularly India’s restrained use of its assets (forbidden to cross the Line of Control, preventing the Kargil conflict from escalating) and Pakistan’s difficulty supporting soldiers it had effectively disowned by pretending they were merely Kashmiri irregulars. Both the skill of the Indian air force and the restraint shown by both air arms prevented sharp conflict between hostile nuclear neighbors and allowed India to make a successful counterattack despite its initial lack of organization.

The author’s conclusions give a great deal of credit to India’s air force for its adaptability and skill, but he offers some words of caution about the problems of interservice rivalry. This thoughtful analysis of airpower at the extremes of high-altitude fighting will be of great interest to readers who wish to examine political constraints on the use of airpower (and conventional military strength in general) between nuclear enemies. Airpower at 18,000’ provides a worthwhile and sober treatment of a little-known conflict that nonetheless offers valuable lessons to students of airpower. Pictures, maps, and charts add to the discussion, and sidebars convey the book’s most important comments and conclusions, all of which make this work easier to understand without losing any of its technical excellence.

Nathan Albright

Portland, Oregon

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."